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Offices are changing, but desks are here to stay

If you ask ten people of different ages what they believe belongs in an office, most of them will probably answer: a desk. It is actually surprising that many futurologists consider the desk to be a "dying species". For them, the future work scene looks quite different: lounging on a sofa, chatting with colleagues in a ski lift chair placed in the middle of a meeting room, or brainstorming new creative ideas during a walk through the Zen Garden that has been planted next to the company building. Brave new world. Who wouldn't want to work this way?

Office workers standing and sitting at ergonomic and adjustable office desks in a modern office

But let me tell you something: I am writing this piece on a laptop at a desk in my office. Very old school. And I am going to boldly state at this point that as long as people have something to write, they will still be working from their desk many years from now. Writing from the sofa only works for me in exceptional cases.

Even if the office workers of tomorrow do sit in their ski lift chair, or regularly visit the Zen Garden, at some point during their working day they will return to a desk, at least temporarily. But they may also choose to stand at their desk to work. And with that said, after this admittedly somewhat provocative introduction, I have come to my point: The desk has evolved over time, as has the way we use it. Not only has desk design changed, but so has its features. Thanks to technical innovations, it has been adapted to the way we work. In the animal kingdom, we would say that this adaptability has and will ensure its survival.

The way we work has changed rapidly in recent years ...

Fixed structures have long since dissolved and will continue to do so. We also work remotely from home, on the train or in the garden. We spend more time in meetings than at our desks. We like to discuss things with colleagues 'on the fly'. So yes, the question is perhaps justified: do we still need a desk at all or is the desk more or less redundant?

In my opinion, a desk in an office will continue to be a permanent fixture. But that does not mean that there will not be changes. Quite the opposite. Both the office and the desk will continue to undergo transformations, as they already have in the past.

Young man with laptop working from home from his garden.Today you can literally work from anywhere – even from the garden.

It is important to keep two strands of development in mind. One is the organisational changes to the work life and the other is the technical development, which in turn influences the organisational changes. True to the motto: 'The tool adapts to requirements and technical possibilities'.


A look into history

Let us look back in history: the first room where people processed documents or managed processes became what I would call an office. The furniture in these rooms continually evolved to adapt to changes in organisations and technical possibilities. One of the major and more drastic changes was certainly the onset of digitalisation.

The computer made its way into the office. Not only in the accounting and secretarial departments, but also in the planning and design departments. Technical drafts people moved from the big drawing board to CAD software. Architects, designers, and drafts people swapped their ruler, pencil and compass for a computer, mouse, and keyboard. They were also the ones who prompted a particular development in the office: the electrically height-adjustable desk. The drawing board offered the option of working in both a sitting and standing position, so drafts people and engineers would sit or stand in front of an almost vertical plan. Working while standing? Why shouldn't that also be possible with a computer?

Technical drafts people hand drawing at big drawing boards.

So, it is hardly surprising that the first height-adjustable desks were those belonging to the designers. In the early 1990s, there were CAD desks that could be manually adjusted in height. If you go back further to the year 1910, you will come across the German company Reiss, which launched the first height-adjustable desk. Of course, it could not be adjusted at the push of a button, just like the CAD workbenches at the time.

In the 1990s, LINAK developed the first solutions for electrically height-adjustable desks. In 1998, LINAK introduced the DL1 lifting column, the world's first system for an electrically height-adjustable office desk.


Innovations need fertile ground

One might assume that global demand would go through the roof after the product launch of the first height-adjustable desks. Far from it. Only in the Scandinavian countries did the trend of alternating between standing and sitting in a back-friendly and health-promoting way catch on. Here, the share of electrically height-adjustable workplaces was already more than 90 % in 2005.

In Germany and other European countries, investing in height-adjustable desks to offer office employees an ergonomic and thus healthy workplace was still a battle. It took a lot of convincing to get the benefits of working at alternating heights into the minds of the decision-makers. Acceptance, and thereby demand, only increased slowly. As demand increased, the price also fell, which also contributed to the success of the electrically height-adjustable workstation. According to the IBA Study on the development of office Work (2019/2020), as many as 28% of all office workers in Germany worked at a sit-stand workstation in 2019. The Publication from IBA (in German only) can be downloaded here.


Illustration showing an office worker sitting and standing at a height-adjustable table.Occupational physicians and ergonomics specialists were quickly inspired by the idea of alternating between sitting and standing. However, it took a long time for the sit-stand workplace to establish itself in Germany.


Over the years, the technology for the height-adjustable desk has steadily evolved. In the beginning, actuator system technology only enabled up and down movements. From an early stage, LINAK equipped the controls with more intelligence, allowing for optimal implementation of important features such as absolute parallel drive, collision protection or energy saving. Intelligent systems allow even more innovative steps to be made. Key elements here are the integration of intelligent booking systems and the area of individualisation.


Looking to the future

Even more flexibility: The desk will continue to evolve and acquire more features. It will adapt to the changing work organisations. Flexibility is key here. The past few months of the pandemic have accelerated this development. Do we need a separate desk for every single employee? Couldn't we optimise offices, save space, and thereby resources through activity-based working? Will workplaces become even more independent than they are today?

One thing is clear: the height-adjustable workstation will no longer be something exceptional, but a standard that nobody wants to do without. In any case, more people will work remotely and use their private spaces as offices. But what do people who only have a small flat do? Many sit at the kitchen table, in a corner of the living room or even in their bedroom. This is a challenge for office furniture manufacturers. Perhaps they need to design a multifunctional desk that doubles as a dining table or that disappears into the wall at the touch of a button. Quite flexible and clever.

'The desk will continue to evolve and acquire more features. It will adapt to the changing work situations and be digitally networked.'
Christoph Messing, Managing Director of LINAK GmbH

We have already seen how, in recent years, digitalisation has blurred the boundaries between work and private life. For many people, checking their e-mails on their smartphone in the evening is now completely normal. The fact that the home office is now becoming an essential part of the working world is another important step in this direction. But this also means that home and office are competing. That is why the home needs to be more practically organised for working, while offices need to feel more homely. Boundaries are becoming blurred in both directions.


Photo collage of an adjustable office desk placed in both a home office and a corporate office.The boundaries between office and home office will become even more blurred in the future.


In the next few years, offices are set to change even further

Offices are becoming more homely: In the next few years, we will see offices become even more homely. They are increasingly competing with the home office. The office must offer an optimal and healthy working environment.

Not only that, the employee needs to feel at home in the office. This is where furniture plays an essential role. It helps implement a living culture in a working environment. We will see new materials, sustainably produced and without harmful substances. I expect that tabletop sizes will also change. The demand for smaller tabletops will increase. This is not only due to the limited space in the home office but is also a result of the changed organisation of how we work. Office work is requiring less paper. Tables are turning into temporary workstations with docking stations for laptops and smartphones.

Office workers standing at an ergonomic and adjustable conference desk.Teamwork will play an even larger role in the office of tomorrow.


More flexibility instead of old habits

The desk is becoming intelligent: In the offices of tomorrow, only a few employees will still have a fixed personal desk. Teams will be formed depending on the project, and desks will be used flexibly.

Booking systems for desks and workplaces will steadily increase and become the norm. And what is more, artificial intelligence will find its way into the office.

Young, female office worker booking an office desk at touch screen in an office – activity based working.In many companies the office desks are connected via a booking system.


Let us imagine the following scenario: Christian works in marketing and has two meetings with the sales department for the industrial sector on Monday. His calendar also includes editing some technical literature. He arrives at the company and the system assigns him an appropriate workstation in direct proximity to colleagues from technical support in the industry sector. This allows him to quickly exchange information with the relevant colleagues when it comes to the technical details in the data sheets. He is also a short distance from the respective meeting room. The assigned desk is familiar with his habits and automatically adjusts to the optimal sitting and standing height and regularly reminds him to stand. Christian has set this information in his profile. And at the end of the working day, the desk is automatically moved upwards into cleaning mode so that it can be disinfected and cleaned better and more easily. All this requires intelligent technology in the desk controls.

This intelligence could even go much further. Quantified Self is a fitting keyword here. So much of our data is already being collected, such as steps and calories being counted via wearables and smartphones. Such data collection will increasingly infiltrate our working lives. Employers will not be able to stand out simply by offering fruit and beverages or paying subsidies for fitness studios. For employees, it will become the norm to behave in a quantifiably healthy way at the workplace, through exercise, alternating between sitting and standing and by offering different challenges, such as the "healthiest employee of the month". The intelligence in the height-adjustable desks will, among other things, provide the data for this. And in the end, this data, which apps for height-adjustable desks can provide, could also be used to calculate health insurance rates. It could lead to users of healthy and ergonomic workstations saving money on their insurance. This will, of course, trigger ethical debates on how to handle data, but in the end, this will also lead to the acceptance of the technologies and the opportunities they provide.


Ideas are already flourishing

The 'Design meets movement' competition, which LINAK held for the first time together with the University of Wuppertal in 2014, also brought exciting ideas to light. Young students have developed the desk of the future. The results were some amazing solutions, which are more ground-breaking today than ever before. LINAK relaunched this competition in 2020. And again, the results are impressive. They were presented to the public in summer 2021, and I am convinced that we will see some of these ideas appear in office furniture manufacturers' product ranges in years to come.

Two adjustable office desk concepts from Design Meets Movement competition.The student competition 'Design meets movement', launched by LINAK, brought exciting ideas for future desks to light.


The desk will still have its place in offices in the future. Or in the rooms where we work, and therefore also in private home offices. It may just be that the desk looks different, transforms itself and integrates with other functionalities in the area, and is networked and able to interface with different services. In short: The desk is far from dead.

To read the full article – click here


Christoph Messing, Managing Director of LINAK GmbH

This text was written as a contribution to the book series "OFFICE PIONEERS", published by Prima Vier Nehring Verlag. Over 100 authors in this series of books provide an outlook on the future of the office.

Christoph Messing is Managing Director of LINAK GmbH. He has been working on the subject of offices for over 20 years.

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